A tough Labor Day

Florence Reece, “Which Side Are You On?”

I grew up in a strongly Republican, hence, strongly anti-union, household. In fact, in my family, the noun “union” is nearly always preceded by a profane adjective.

I followed the family line growing up, even refusing to join a union at one workplace. But real life has a way to teaching lessons. While I was working my way through school, I spent my nights in a tool-and-die plant, doing jobs like standing in front of a drop hammer with a small furnace a few feet away. The furnace would heat metal bars to white-hot, then I’d take them out and hold them on the die under the hammer, and then trip the arm that held the other part of the die, which would come crashing down and pound the hot metal into shape. Usually three hits would do it. When my hammer came down, the noise would carry for a couple of blocks, which is why I have hearing problems today (ear protection didn’t really do very much). Five nights a week, eight hours a night, $3.65 an hour.

It was a closed shop, so I joined the Machinists. I didn’t think much of it, wasn’t really active, until the contract talks began, and then I was finally confronted with the attitude most business takes towards its workers. We’re not partners in creating wealth; we’re just another piece of machinery, to be run at maximum speed with a minimum of maintenance, and once we’re exhausted, to be chucked. We came close to a strike, and by that time, I was pretty pissed, and pretty committed to the cause of labor.

Since then, I’ve belonged to the Grain Millers (worked 18 months in a flour mill) and the Newspaper Guild (four years at a union-shop paper). At the latter, I was a local vice-president, and we went through another contract negotiation. This time, management wasn’t even subtle. We worked for a newspaper chain notorious for it’s anti-union tactics, ready to fly in a crowd of lawyers expert in union-busting if need be. Management here made it abundantly clear they would just as soon toss us all onto the sidewalk as settle.

Meanwhile, I covered City Hall and watched that administration’s persistent attacks on unionized public workers.

Now, come Labor Day, 2011, I’m pretty depressed. Ever since Reagan broke the PATCO union, labor has been on the defensive.

Robert Samuelson, with whom I often disagree, has a good column to this effect – Samuelson on the decline of workers\' fortunes

The wave of Republicans elected, especially to Governors’ offices, has been relentless in its efforts to destroy collective bargaining for public workers. At the federal level, the Obama administration has basically ignored working people and the unions who represent them (and came all out in support of his campaign in 2008). Recent actions by the National Labor Relations Board, particularly going after Boeing, accusing the corporation of retaliation in its decision to set up final production of its 797 plane in South Carolina in response to a strike in Washington state, are encouraging, but I frankly don’t trust Obama to stand up to the pressure being brought by Republicans against the NLRB. Heck, he hasn’t stood up to them on much else, why start now?

Of course, Rs always hated unions, and it became fashionable in some Dem circles to regard unions as sort of anachronisms left over from the days when the US was a manufacturing nation. With the advent of the New Economy, based on “knowledge workers,” unions were no longer a constituency requiring loyalty and support. Well, now that we know the whole “knowledge worker” thing was a big mistake, and we’re once again realizing the country needs to make things to sell to each other and other countries.

But it’s hard for me to miss the coincidence that, as union power fell (1 in 14 workers is unionized; in the early 1970s, it was 1 in 4), most Americans became less economically secure. Real wages have fallen; benefits are less certain (and certainly less comprehensive); and income inequality has soared. All this has happened even though productivity has seen more-or-less steady increases over the years. In short, workers are not being rewarded for their contributions to wealth creation.

It has often been noted that, when unions were strong, the benefits of America’s economy were more evenly distributed. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch, from my point of view, to say unions helped create the American middle class. Now that class is being hollowed out, and what new manufacturing jobs are being created are actually paying less than existing ones.

I don’t know if these trends can be reversed, but if they can, it’s going to take years, perhaps decades. The economic structure that includes things like 8-hour days and 5-day weeks was built because unions fought hard and often bloody battles in the early 20th century. Labor Day is supposed to be a time to honor those struggles and the contributions of workers to our economic security. Whether that purpose continues in practice, not just in speeches tomorrow, is anybody’s guess.

A little reminder – Why there is a Labor Day



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